Salk: What sets these Mariners apart is they’re playing like a playoff team

Sep 30, 2021, 1:11 AM | Updated: 12:12 pm
Mariners Jarred Kelenic...
Jarred Kelenic of the Seattle Mariners holds up a "Believe" sign after the game against the Oakland Athletics at T-Mobile Park on Wednesday night. The Mariners won 4-2. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

We have all come to hate sports clichés. Or maybe we are just numb to them.

Kelenic helps M’s sweep A’s, win for 10th time in 11 games

“Take it one game at a time.” Uh huh.

“Just want to help the team win.” Sure.

“I’m in the best shape of my career.” Yawn.

“The separation is in the preparation.” Wait, how did that one get in there? Sorry.

While we roll our eyes at coaches and athletes who spew these quotes to get out of having to think about a real answer, we maybe gloss over the clichés and thoughtless statements we as fans make ourselves. And one of my favorite things about this Mariners team is how they are forcing us to stop doing that.

1. “The Mariners have been rebuilding for 20 years.”

Every Seattle fan knows someone who has said this, and you cringe when you hear it because going through the responses would require more time and energy than it’s worth. You’ve thought to yourself, “If I have to explain it in such detail, am I fighting against reality too hard?”

Thankfully, Sports Illustrated has your back. Greg Bishop did the work for you, writing a stellar piece explaining how the first rebuild in team history started after the 2017 season when they dealt Robinson Canó and set about creating the team that has captured so many of our hearts. In it, he quotes general manager/president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, who answered a fan who said they were angry at him for dealing proven veterans for future chips by saying, “We’re trying to get better. We think this is the fastest road to winning a World Series.”

Strange as it may seem, they had never really done that until after the 2018 season. They had failed any number of other ways, but they had never truly undertaken a rebuild. And four years later, they stand poised to exceed their win total from 2018 (89-73) with a young, exciting nucleus and a foundation of a farm system that has climbed from a dead-last ranking to tops in the game. That is a rebuild. And while it hasn’t reached it’s stated goal – a World Series title – it has them significantly closer than they were when it began.

2. “How long has it been since the Mariners played meaningful baseball this late in September?”

You’ve asked this question yourself. Admit it. Or someone asked you the question in that excited yet slightly patronizing tone that let you know that it wasn’t worth answering with the truth.

“Five years,” you could have said. And you’d be right. They were right in the thick of the wild card race in 2016. In fact, that year featured a wild, back-and-forth affair against the A’s on Oct. 2 that ultimately ended their season. In the second-to-last game.

Before that, you’d have to go all the way back to… 2014.

The reality is that they have been close, but it hasn’t felt like this because those other teams weren’t playing like a playoff team. And this one is.

This year’s Mariners have won 10 of their last 11 games and are 18-8 in September. The 2016 version finished the season 8-8, though they did have an eight-game winning streak in September. The 2014 group limped to the finish line, having lost five straight on a brutal September road trip that saw Félix Hernández give up eight runs in 4.1 innings against the Blue Jays in what was probably his best chance to pitch his team into the playoffs.

What does it mean to be playing “playoff baseball” in September? It’s subjective, but the best teams I’ve been around tend to lock in this time of year. They are hyper-focused. They are bonded together. They sacrifice for each other and play unselfishly. They recognize and accept their greatness. They play with athletic arrogance. They hustle. They just have an unwavering confidence in themselves.

We’ve seen plenty of examples here in the last few weeks. Mitch Haniger’s three home runs in two days. Tyler Anderson’s willingness to go on short rest and then dominating for four innings. A bullpen that crushes the will of opposing teams and gets players like Oakland’s Tony Kemp to say things like, “When these guys get in the late innings and their bullpen comes in, their defense tightens up. They just know how to win ballgames. It’s been showing, especially against us.”

We saw it when Drew Steckenrider decided he wasn’t going to respect Seth Brown despite a 3-1 count and a man on first base. Instead, he threw him two straight fastballs at the top of the zone for a huge out.

We see it on J.P. Crawford’s face when he slides into second with another double an immediately turns to share his joy with his teammates. And we see it a few pitches later when he decides to get to third base no matter how deep the fly ball is. Or when he does both things again a few innings later.

And we see it in a manager who has pushed all of the right buttons. Who has his team playing “meaningful baseball” because they play for each other and believe in both themselves and their teammates. Who uses his highest-leverage relievers in the most crucial spots. And who pinch-hits the right bats at the best opportunities.

We can dispense with the question about the last time meaning was ascribed to late season baseball in Seattle. But we can also recognize how this feels different from those last few attempts.

The 2021 Mariners may make history this week. Or they may fall just short, victims of the hole they dug for themselves early this season. But unlike previous seasons, they’ll finish this year primed for the future. They’ll have the best foundational farm system in baseball, poised to replenish and reinforce the big league club with top-tier talent over the next few years, and a team of young players that has now learned how to win and act like a playoff team.

Hopefully, they’ll destroy a few more clichés along the way. Specifically the one that says, “Wait til next year.”

Mariners coverage from 710Sports.com

Shannon Drayer: Why this Mariners run is real, how Anderson’s start helped
Mike Blowers: M’s playing their best baseball as they make a run at playoffs
‘The future is now’: Scott Servais on Mariners’ final push for playoffs
Who is Mariners rookie Matt Brash? What you need to know
Dave Sims: What stands out about how Mariners have stayed in the race

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Salk: What sets these Mariners apart is they’re playing like a playoff team